As Chicago Public Schools teachers and students prepare to return to the classroom earlier than usual, another battle appears to be brewing between the district and the teachers union over the district's reopening plan.
The Chicago Teachers Union in a press conference on Wednesday called for added safety measures and expressed concerns over a potential surge as the school year begins with cases rising across the city and state.
"We're beginning without a comprehensive reopening agreement is the real problem," CTU President Jesse Sharkey said.
Sharkey stated that the district has not released plans for metrics that could force schools to close again and send students back to remote learning.
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"They're trying to cut a number of other provisions, which we had in place last spring, and they're not willing to make those commitments, and we're not wanting to sign an agreement without those commitments. So we have an impasse," Sharkey said.
He noted that teachers are prepared to go to schools at the start of the year, but did not give specifics on what will happen if the two groups don't reach an agreement.
"I mean, right now, our union is preparing to go into the buildings and open schools. The question is are parents going to come and the question is, is it going to stay that way?" he said. "Because if this winds up being a runaway surge, where people are getting sick, being hospitalized and dying, we're going to take action. I think parents are going to support that, and we're not going to simply sit there and participate in mass spreader events inside of our schools, we will take action before that happens. So we'll see. It depends a little bit on the virus."
A spokesperson for CPS said in a statement that the district is following guidance from federal health officials and state guidelines and in some cases has exceeded those precautions.
"It is disappointing that the CTU is rejecting science for their own gain and continues to second guess health experts and express their own unscientific opinions about health related matters. The CTU appears to be committed to spreading doubt instead of preparing for the upcoming school year after the past year's immense disruption to learning."
Last week, CPS announced it would require COVID vaccinations for all employees.
The requirement, which came just days before the district's Aug. 30 start date, includes school-based teachers and staff, central office, regular vendors and network employees, and all other Board employees, unless they qualify for a medical or religious exemption.
“Our Chicago Public School communities deserve a safe and healthy environment that will allow our students to reach their greatest potential,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement. “This new policy enhances the district’s comprehensive reopening plan and ensures that students and staff can confidently learn in-person. Taking this step will further our citywide vaccination efforts and build on our progress in slowing and stopping the spread of COVID-19.”
Under the new policy, all staff will be required to submit proof of full vaccination by Oct. 15, unless they have an approved religious or medical exemption. Those who have not already reported to the district that they are fully vaccinated must be tested once a week at a minimum until Oct. 15 or until proof of vaccination is submitted. Staff with a documented exemption will need to be tested for the remainder of the year.
“The science is clear: higher populations of vaccinated people means better health outcomes in communities, safer places of work and public spaces,” Interim CPS CEO Dr. José M. Torres said in a statement. “This is the right move for the greater good of our school communities and will help ensure we have a successful and healthy school year starting on Monday, August 30.”
A person is considered “fully vaccinated” two weeks after receiving the second dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna COVID vaccine, or two weeks after receiving the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Some teachers, who spoke to NBC 5 Wednesday, expressed concerns about the mandate, saying they plan to fight it, but some experts say such a fight might not end in their favor.
"If employees want to keep their job, they’re going to have to get vaccinated," said employment attorney Patrick Dolan. "There have been court challenges so far in this country that have been unsuccessful and I think that trend is going to continue."
The district had previously announced that all students and teachers will be required to wear face coverings and social distance while indoors this upcoming academic year, regardless of vaccination status.
CPS launched its COVID-19 vaccination effort earlier this month, transforming three high schools into clinics to inoculate students before the new school year.
The district plans to offer full in-person instruction in the fall and also wants to vaccinate as many students as possible before classes begin. District officials previously said they are “not in a position” to mandate COVID-19 vaccines, but will ask families to submit COVID-19 vaccine documents as is the practice with other vaccinations.